I remember her dying

My mother was never really there. She would care about the clothes I wore in parties or on Christmas. When there were others around, she would make sure I behaved properly. She never spoke much, I can’t remember her smiling or laughing, but I have pictures of her where from when she was younger, she had a lovely smile.

She was brought up in a boarding school in South Africa. Her parents brought their two little girls to Africa to work as missionaries. It was common to put the children off to schools far away, and if they were lucky, they got to see their parents in the summer, or maybe for Christmas. The travelled out just before the war. First they went to language training in Paris 1936, then a long travel through Europe, over the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez, and south. Because of the war, they stayed out for 11 years. Normally the missionaries were allowed a year at home every four year. So my mother was a little girl when she went away, and came back almost as a grown up. She was fluent in French and English, but not very good at her mother tongue.

That I can remember, she spoke different then others.  And that was even after I was born, some 12-15 years after returning. She must have felt like a stranger.

When tidying up after my parents some years ago, we found this little red book, fragile, almost falling apart. It was written when she was at the boarding school. Her English was naïve, although she was a good writer, even as a child.
I immediately recognised the story, well of course not her story. But the story behind; the one of hiding, getting away, trying to escape, not having the attention a little girl should have. And it was indicated, as much as a little girl her age dared to indicate, that she was a victim too. Not a victim of her parents abusing her, but staff at the boarding school. Her older sister later confirmed that to me.

My mother was never happy. She had one girl, one boy, and them five years after, me. I remember her smoking constantly. I remember her knitting. I remember her being in a terrible state if we, (mostly my brother and sister) were arguing, just before he was supposed to come home. I remember her panicking if dinner wasn’t ready at 4pm. She would cry if she thought she’d done something wrong. I remember how scared I was, once, having wet myself playing in the garden, I must have been four.

I remember her dying.

She was ill for about a year, cancer, and away for most of the time, at a hospital far away. So he was away too, for long stretches of time. I did not know what was going on, children were not supposed to get involved I think. I knew something was wrong though. I was moved around to different relatives, we had different housekeepers, and I can only remember visiting my mother once at hospital in my home town. She wore a wig, it looked weird. She told me I had to pray to jesus that he would make her well again. I didn’t. So it was probably my fault.

One day, my sister was crying, I was playing with a lot of toys on the floor. He put me on his lap; we were in my sisters’ yellow room. My brother was sitting on my sisters’ bed. I remember wiggling wanting to get down. Then he told us that my mother had died.

I went down on the floor again, and continued playing with my toys. My sister cried.

We found my mothers diary from when she got ill too, a couple of years back. She was so scared. She had this control issue, writing down all examinations, all vomiting or other symptoms, and all medication. The last months are almost impossible to read. I imagine they kept her on heavy tranquillisers or painkillers.

He kept that little red book, her boarding school story in his nightstand for as long as he lived. I’d like to think that he loved her, or that she felt that she was loved at least. I don’t think he could love.

I weren’t allowed in the funeral, but being next door neighbour to the church, I heard the church bells. I think I got a new toy.

After the funeral, he, my brother and sister, and me, went away on holiday, I remember the fun fair. None of us followed her coffin to the graveyard, none of us met the rest of the family grieving. Soon after, my mothers parents would move to a different part of the country. He wouldn’t have anything to do with anybody else in the family (or others, for that matter). I think he wanted to show that he could make it on his own. He couldn’t.

She died in July. I was seven starting school in August.

Writing really wears me out. I can sit and just let the fingers go, though I think a bit before I start. But it is after, that it gets to me. I feel so tired. I feel that the sorrow that I really never have taken in is catching up. I don’t like that feeling!


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